LFF 2019: Judy & Punch Review
A tick-tocking, clip-clopping score introduces us to Australian director Mirrah Foulkes’ incredibly assured debut feature - set in a town called “Seaside” (nowhere near the sea), this bizarre, allegorical story follows the puppeteer double-act of the title. Punch (Damon Herriman) sees himself as the next toast of ‘The Big Smoke’, while his wife, Judy (Mia Wasikowska) is the true master of the marionettes.
Despite throwing herself wholeheartedly into the act whilst still caring for their infant child, Judy is mistreated by Punch, who is easily angered by any mistakes and turns quickly to the bottle. During one drunken rage, Punch beats Judy to within an inch of her life and dumps her in the forest outside of town, blaming their servants for her murder.
Every facet of the Punch and Judy legend is here in some form or other, be it the inept policeman (a hilarious Benedict Hardie), the crocodile that haunts Judy’s dreams, and even the chipolatas: “The devil’s awake, and he wants his sausages!” These archetypes stage the puppet show as a wider metaphor for the historical subjugation of talented women by brutish men, enabled by the cluelessness of the police and the religiously-fuelled flames of mob rule.
It’s not hard to see those metaphors and subtext at work here: the film not so much revels in allegory as it does clobber the audience over the head with it, as the puppet version of Punch wields his cosh. That is until Judy awakens in the forest with a scream that shakes the land, and the story takes an altogether stranger (and unfortunately confused) path before Foulkes wrangles the disparate threads and themes together for a satisfying finale - the lesson it imparts is nothing new, but bears repeating.
Where the screenplay truly shines is in a knife-edge balance of grotesque, “I shouldn’t be giggling at this but I am” cringe comedy and the grit and grime of the rather vague period setting - picture Aleksey German’s Hard to Be a God meets The Office. Women are executed as witches for “staring at the moon for a suspiciously long time” and a weeping drunk laments the change from stoning to hanging with a plaintive “I suppose they’ve got mix things up a bit!”
This odd setting also allows a little more exploration of those key themes: when a man performs incredible feats, he’s a genius - when a woman does the same, she’s a heretic. Wasikowska is ostensibly the star, but is utilised more as a vehicle for the larger metaphor than a genuine character. Her screentime is also significantly less than her male co-star (though by negligence or design is unclear) - Herriman bounces through every scene with deranged merriment to the consternation of his servant, an elderly man with a voice like a tin whistle.
Composer François Tétaz joins the cacophony with an intriguing score comprised of Mica Levi-esque, broken-grandfather-clock droning alongside electronic versions of classical pieces such as Bach’s ‘Air on the G String’ and strange shanties. Accompanied by an outstanding final shot, one of these closes the film and ensures that, warts and all (rest assured there are plenty!); you’ll see nothing quite like Judy & Punch all year.
Judy & Punch premieres as part of the BFI London Film Festival’s ‘Dare’ strand on Saturday, 12th October, before releasing in UK cinemas on November 22nd.